Sorry E.T. the house is a mess


“I don’t like its feet.”

That was Drew Barrymore’s complaint about E.T. If you missed that (how could you possibly), it was the Halloween scene when the kids dress up E.T. in a sheet. Being a movie quote family, every time we really like something but want to find a way to humanize it, one of us just says, “I don’t like its feet.”

This week an invisible blogger (or two, I couldn’t tell) didn’t like my feet. In last week’s column I’d misspelled Arnold Swarchenegger’s last name and confused Romania’s Ceauşescu with Serbia’s Milošević. I know, it’s hard to keep one war criminal straight from the other these days. But I should have been more careful. So for those who follow these things, the appropriate corrections have been made to my blog.

And that’s the beauty and the danger of the Internet. It’s a remarkably complex place, with all kinds of information that can be easily deformed, as I did. Aside from my embarrassment, it got me thinking about the nature of complex systems.

Lester Brown, futurist, thinker and possible dystopian, believes that systems that become ever more complex eventually collapse. This is a common conclusion. The less common converse position, promoted by people like the late economist Julian Simon posit that complex systems are highly beneficial to civilization. He predicted two things would happen as a result of global population growth and the resultant complexity: “First, conditions will improve in just about every material way. Second, humans will continue to sit around complaining about everything getting worse.”

Brown and Simon were old adversaries. Brown countered: '”Most biologists and ecologists look at population growth in terms of the carrying capacity of natural systems. Julian was not handicapped by being either. As an economist, he could see population growth in a much more optimistic light.”

For a couple of decades it seemed as if Simon might be right. And if one is a believer in the global free market system, and that human activity is benign, then you’re with Simon. However, if you’re inclined to agree with scientists around the world, that humans are having a significant negative impact on the earth, you’re with Brown.

That was the interesting thing about the market meltdown a year ago. A lot of people, including financial experts, became a lot more uncertain about the staying power of a complex, free market economy. Suddenly, it seemed as if Simon’s view was out and Brown’s was in. But what a difference a year makes.

Today, the markets have rebounded dramatically—even though the official unemployment rate in the U.S. is running at over 10%, with the unofficial rate at around 15%. Fortunately, the complex market system has redeemed itself in the eyes of those skittish investment bankers. One wonders if the unemployed factory worker in Tennessee agrees.

Humility, as always, is short lived. I’m already over my Serbian faux pas. As the stock market surges, the briefly chastened bankers have returned to type—and why not? Generally, bank profits are up across North America. Canada’s TD Bank posted a $912 million profit for its third quarter this year, a big portion of that coming from its wholesale banking operations which saw that division’s profits soaring by nearly 90%. I guess no one at TD thinks the government bailout was a bad thing.

Duncan Watts, who writes for the Ideas section of the Boston Globe, connects some of the dots inside this complex world we access through networks (both digital and actual).

“In all the excitement, however,” Watts says, “we tend to overlook a fact that should be obvious—that once everything is connected, problems can spread as easily as solutions, sometimes more so. Thanks to globally connected transportation systems, epidemics of disease like SARS, avian influenza, and swine flu can spread farther and faster than ever before. Thanks to the Internet, e-mail viruses, nasty rumors, and embarrassing truths can spread to colleagues, loved ones, or even around the world before remedial action can be taken to stop them. And thanks to globally connected financial markets, a drop in real-estate prices in California can hurt the retirement benefits of civil servants in the UK.”

What we tend to miss in such observations, though Watts alludes to it, is the underlying structure of this complexity—is exactly its opposite. The logic behind the actual systems is incredibly simple and homogenous. We tend to look at the complexity of the mechanism, its output and the information it delivers and view that entire machine as complex. But in fact it’s not.

Our industrial systems—factories, Internet server farms or even software code—are far less complex than the natural systems they mimic. Compared to the human brain, computers are brute instruments. Compared to complex rainforest ecosystems, high-output palm oil plantations are dead simple. Compared to natural genetic diversity, patented genetic “discoveries” are laughing (though dangerously) elementary.

The point of all this human enterprise, of course, is not complexity but activity. The idea is to create vast, simple systems that can provide as much activity as possible. You might it “Googlizing”. As in, “you can enter a plain white front page and access the entire universe of information.”

The real complexity is human. There are just a helluva lot of us on the planet, and we use an incomprehensibly huge amount of resources. Yet the idea that human complexity creates “decomplexity” is not widely understood. Human beings consume complexity and replace it with simpler byproducts.

Recent over-fishing has depleted fish stocks to near extinction. In response, human beings have adapted by eating lower on the food chain; we’re even growing a taste for less complex creatures such as jellyfish. We use up complex hydrocarbons stored underground for millions of years—at a rate of about 4 billion tons (of just oil) a year—and push out 7 billion tons of carbon dioxide a year from all sources of fossil fuel.

In the end it’s all about production. Oscar Wilde once said of the U.S., “America is the only country that went from barbarism to decadence without civilization in between.” Given our current rates of consumption I’m pretty sure that lack of civilization isn’t limited to the U.S.

It’s all a bit embarrassing. If there were actually a God or an E.T. watching.


  1. We have definitely overshot the carrying capacity of the planet. By drawing down ecological capital, instead living off the returns of that capital, short term growth can be accomplished at the cost of reducing future carrying capacity, with generally disastrous results.

  2. I'd have to agree. Checked out your blog, well written. It'll be a puzzling century, no doubt. Solutions at the planetary scale are difficult. At best all we'll get is organic change. I'll leave it to your imagination to determine what that might be... Cheers CG. -G.


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